Chicago Sun-Times
with sports reporters Daryl Van Schouwen and Chris De Luca

Winter ball got Humber's mind right for baseball

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I was going through some things in my Philip Humber vault, and found a story I wrote last May 6, when Humber was carving a niche in the White Sox rotation. Humber, who pitched the 21st perfect game in baseball history on Satrday, talked to me then about how his entire approach to baseball changed after he played winter ball with a bunch of castoffs and wannabes who played simply for the love of the game.

By Daryl Van Schouwen

You wonder where an 11-21 team's collective head is right now. In a clubhouse full of slumping hitters and defenders and tinkering relief pitchers, fifth starter Phil Humber is one White Sox who has it figured out.

And it didn't take the team psychologist, or manager Ozzie Guillen's tongue-in-cheek solution ("We used to solve the mental problem with vodka and a lot of Budweiser'') to put Humber in a better place mentally. He did it on his own.

"I don't know how you quantify it but for me baseball is 90 percent mental,'' said Humber, who faces the huge task of getting the Sox untracked tonight against the Mariners and Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez. "I've always been prepared physically but not until recently have I prepared my mind for what I need to do to prepare myself for the right way of thinking. I'm glad it's happened now. I wish it would have happened early, but I can really enjoy what I'm doing now and appreciate where I'm at.''

The third overall pick by the Mets in the 2004 draft, Humber hasn't lived up to that but his that's-more-like-it start to 2011 (2-3, 3.06 ERA) looks like a find for a team that has blindsided its fan base with its worst start since 1978.

"When I was in New York I felt like I had to live up to be worthy of being drafted third overall,'' Humber said. "Whether it was real or imagined, I felt like people always expected more. Was I throwing hard enough? Or doing this or that? Same thing in Minnesota when I got traded for [Johan] Santana. I felt like everybody was looking for some payoff for that trade. And it took my focus away from what I could control.''

Everything changed for Humber after his 2009 season split with the Twins (eight earned runs in nine innings) and AAA Rochester (7-9, 5.34 ERA). A minor-league free agent whom Minnesota had given up on -- Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said he looked like his mind was going 100 miles per hour as the game was running away from him -- Humber packed bags for Puerto Rico to play winter ball. He did it solely for grins and to get his head straight.

"I went to have fun playing baseball and not worry about what anybody else was thinking,'' he said. "It really helped me."

Humber was reunited with Ricky Bones, his pitching coach in Class A, and he played with a mix of prospects and older players who were grateful for the opportunity to play.

"It made an immediate impact on me,'' Humber said. "I just said, 'I'm thankful for today and I'm going to do the best I can with it.' ''

Humber took that approach to spring training after being signed by Kansas City last January. He pitched most of the season at AAA Omaha (4.47) and was 2-1 with a 4.15 ERA in eight games with the Royals. The Sox claimed him on waivers in January, and he brought his new mindset to spring training where he won a spot in the rotation.

"This is what I have today, this is the opportunity, I'll do my best and the results will be what they are,'' Humber said. "At the end of the day, it's not going to change my life as a person. I'm still the same person. That's what changed me.

"I had to figure out why I was playing. Because I'm a first-round pick and had a five-year contract? Am I playing for the money? For what people think of me?

"I sat down and made a list of the reasons why, and what it boiled down to is because I want to. If I don't want to play, I don't have to. Nobody is forcing me.''

The initial success this season won't change Humber's approach. In years past, he said he'd be looking over his shoulder now that Jake Peavy is possibly coming back to the rotation, putting pressure on himself to pitch well or else. No more.

Humber's stuff -- including a good slider that's the centerpiece of his arsenal -- is basically the same as before. The differences lie between his ears, and in his pulse rate.

"When you're relaxed and focused on what you need to do, you command the ball better for sure -- no tension," Humber said. "I've got to where I can make a pitch in pressure situations because I'm not worried about the result. Once I let it go I'm done with it. And I've got better command. It's more mental than anything.''

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This page contains a single entry by Daryl Van Schouwen published on April 23, 2012 10:50 AM.

Sale strikes out 11 Mariners in White Sox victory was the previous entry in this blog.

White Sox lower prices for Humber's next start is the next entry in this blog.

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